Zazu Pannee Park Regent as it once was: A place to fly your "freak flag."
Zazu Pannee Park Regent as it once was: A place to fly your "freak flag."
Robrt L. Pela

Under the Sun: Once a Place to Fly Your 'Freak Flag,' Zazu Is Now the Pits

“Nothing good ever lasts,” huffed the young woman with day-after-Halloween hair. She lit a tight, hand-rolled cigarette and leaned against the door of a shiny car parked on East Osborn Road. She had dressed the night before as a punk rocker. Her still-brightly dyed buzz-cut shone with the memory of neon stripes.

“I don’t want anyone to know I’m talking about that place,” she muttered, then pointed her chin across the street. “I have to live there for a while, and I don’t want trouble from those people.”

“Over there” was the former Zazu Pannee Park Regent, a legendary local apartment community that catered to creative types. “Those people” were the new owners and management team. The young woman complained that they were ruining a once-great place to live.

She waved away a plume of smoke. “It used to be interesting. Gays and people walking around singing all the time. Trees everywhere. Drag queens! You could fly your freak flag,” she said of the place where she’d lived for more than a year. “Now it’s just another boring apartment complex.”

Built in 1953 and renovated in 2006 by developer and arts supporter Eric Hamburger, the complex became a haven for creative types looking to lease, rather than own, a midtown home. Hamburger’s overhaul brought colossal, Barbie-leg-pink metal butterfly wings that sprouted on either side of an entrance dwarfed by bright bougainvillea.

Beyond the wings, faux glam and theatrics bloomed: a private screening room with walls upholstered in shiny, hot pink fabric; a faux “beach” duned with sand; a swimming pool brooked by a Hollywood-styled clubhouse. Above a lush landscape of bottle brush and date palms loomed a 40-foot, handpainted theatrical stage with a proscenium arch and trompe l’oeil orchestra.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” remembered graphic artist Tom Carlson, who lived at Zazu Pannee while he and his wife, Kim, were deciding whether to move to Phoenix in 2015. “They gave us a tour of the place and told us it was an artist colony. They said there were actors and singers living there who gave impromptu performances. Kim saw the outdoor stage and that was it. We stayed for six months.”

Carlson said Hamburger provided housing for visiting artists of Arizona Theatre Company and Arizona Opera, hosted meet-and-greets with actors, and catered to an eclectic crowd of performers and arty types. “It was always this really happy, creative place to live or visit,” said Carlson, former art director for Phoenix New Times. “Then after Eric’s husband died, there was sadness there.”

The sadness grew like Topsy after Hamburger sold the complex in May to a Canadian outfit. The new owners stripped Zazu Pannee Park Regent of its butterfly wings and most of its name, rechristening it Zazu Apartment Homes. Its façade was whitewashed and the entryway greenery uprooted, replaced with a pair of wee, spindly potted palms.

“We’re planning to donate that,” said Ileana Connolly during a recent Monday morning tour of the grounds.

Connolly is Zazu’s new senior regional manager, and “that” is the gaudy and much-loved stage that dwarfed the complex’s newly denuded garden. The Hollywood clubhouse, she said, is used for storage. The pink fabric walls of the screening room will soon become Zazu history.

Rent went up, and morale went down, said the woman with striped hair. Her unit costs her $150 more than it did last year. That price once included her utilities. “Not anymore,” she said, then snorted smoke.

Yelp recently erupted into a chorus of complaints. Zazu no longer sprayed for insects, one Yelper complained on the review forum’s site. The laundry room was dirty, the washers and dryers always broken; no trees meant no shade and hotter apartments.

“Needless to say, I did not renew my lease,” carped another Yelper. “I feel really bad for the residents who are currently stuck there waiting for their lease to end so they can move.”

“I can’t wait to move out of Zazu!” Yelped yet another.

Hamburger, Connolly said, had a vision. The new owner had a different one.

“It was much more artsy in his day,” she said of Hamburger. “He created something very unique. We’re going to kick it up a notch.”

Connolly pointed to a sign printed with the words “Poop litter.” “We’re very pet-friendly,” she explained. She was especially proud of the new glass-tiled backsplashes in some of the units’ kitchens. “Look at this, it’s beautiful!” she exclaimed of one apartment’s bedroom flooring. “This is not apartment-grade carpet. It’s Berber!”

People get nervous when a complex changes ownership, Connolly said. “We just want to bring the community back together, to re-create what the former owner had. Right now we’re a diamond in the rough.”

The woman with Halloween hair hooted when she heard that one.

“We didn’t used to be in the rough,” she said before climbing into the shiny car. “Last year, we were just a diamond.”

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